Riverhead ADD founder Don Rieb retires after 33 years

Don Rieb of ADD in Riverhead

Don Rieb founded Aid to the Developmentally Disabled in 1983 with little more than a broken typewriter, a busted filing cabinet and a legal pad in a one-room office above a bank.

The Riverhead nonprofit has grown to include 32 group homes that serve more than 160 individuals across eastern Long Island who are developmentally disabled or have a mental illness. A new residential program is also set to open in February.

Mr. Rieb’s compassion and his accomplishments in helping the disabled were highlighted by ADD staff members during his retirement party last Thursday at the Jamesport Manor Inn.

“It’s been a blessing,” said Mr. Rieb, who lives in East Patchogue. “ADD has been a wonderful gift for me. It’s not often that someone can be involved in developing something that’s to the benefit of the more fragile in our society.”

The idea for the organization was sparked by a request from parents who, concerned about their children’s physical and emotional health, wanted to avoid putting them in overcrowded state-run institutions. The parents contacted the state, which had just purchased a site in Northville for a new community residence and told Mr. Rieb that if he could get an agency off the ground, the spot was his. Given his experience, the state reached out to Mr. Rieb. At that point, he had worked at the Association for Habilitation and Residential Care, a nonprofit that provides services for people with developmental disabilities, for 10 years.

Helping those with developmental disabilities wasn’t always the path Mr. Rieb envisioned for himself after serving three years in the Marine Corps, then working to open new stores for Sears.

Dedicating his life to helping the disabled started after he took a course at Stony Brook University for which he visited a state institution for those with developmental disabilities. During a tour of a medical building, he noticed children with Down syndrome waiting in the wings and, right then and there, something about the image made him want to make a change.

Going with his instincts, he then attended graduate school at C.W. Post, where he earned a master’s degree in community mental health.

“What I found out is, if you listen to this,” Mr. Rieb said as he tapped his temple, “it’s gonna get you in trouble. But if you listen to your instincts, and what feels good, it’s gonna to be good.”

In ADD’s early days, Mr. Rieb wore multiple hats.

“He started this agency from scratch,” said ADD program director Dorota Wider, who has worked at the organization for 17 years. “For a while, he was the program director. He was the maintenance person. He was the nurse. He was doing it all.”

Over the years, his job duties have included 3 a.m. telephone calls if the plumbing in a home didn’t work or if a driveway was buried under deep snow.

“For somebody to be able to be chief cook and bottle washer and then grow to administer 32 [homes], it demonstrates an amazing ability to delegate and to work with people,” said Al Richards, ADD board of directors treasurer and member of nearly 24 years. “That’s undoubtedly the most impressive thing I’ve experienced at ADD.”

Mr. Rieb described himself as someone who always wanted to be more than he was at any one time. That goes for his retirement, too, during which he said he’ll continue to look for new adventures and will assist ADD if needed.

He attributes the organization’s growth over the years to its staff, now close to 300 strong, the board of directors and a welcoming community in Riverhead. He is a past president of the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors, having joined that board because he thought it was important to be active in the community where ADD is based.

Overall, Mr. Rieb said the agency he built has been a success.

“We all want to lead a life that’s meaningful and I certainly have done that,” he said.

Mr. Rieb said that although ADD and similar organizations have seen a drop in state funding and other revenues in recent years, the group will continue to maintain its programs. Fundraising will become a bigger part of its future, said Charles Evdos, its new executive director. Mr. Evdos previously worked as the director of development, marketing and public relations at the Cerebral Palsy Association of Nassau County.

During the retirement party, ADD’s board of directors and senior staff surprised Mr. Rieb with proclamations from the Town of Riverhead and state Sen. Ken LaValle, commending him for his dedication. ADD employees said Mr. Rieb cares not only about the organization’s clients, but also about the staff — always making sure their voices were heard and that they felt they were his equal.

“You’ve been a mentor and a friend,” Sue Parrinello, a program director who has worked at ADD for 22 years, told Mr. Rieb. “Although we certainly didn’t agree on everything over the years,you taught me really how to be a good leader and you really demonstrate for all of us how to be a good leader.”

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Photo: Aid to the Developmentally Disabled (ADD) founder Don Rieb at his retirement party last Thursday. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)